Understanding by Design

It seems that a lot of schools are jumping on board the backward planning wagon… and to be honest, I am so glad!  It is very daunting at first when you see the pages and pages of information in the text and accompanying workbook but the heart of the whole thing is this…. We should have a concrete goal in mind for our students before we teach even one lesson in our classroom.

The old way of teaching involved a lot of going page after page in the book with the goal of making it to the unit test and starting the next unit.  Backward planning means we start at the unit test (or for me performance based assessment) and decide what we really want the kids to take away from this unit FOR LIFE… Not what can they cram before they sit down with the test paper… What is the enduring knowledge we want them to have?  Changes everything, doesn’t it?  When you think about learning things for life, it becomes a lot more important to select our goals wisely.

Another difference is that in UbD you are looking at each and every subject in its wholeness.  Don’t dissect your subject matter and teach it in its component parts!  Some kids may not be able to put those all back together in a real-life situation.  This is where foreign language through TPRS really lends itself to the UbD goals.  We WANT to look at the language as a whole.  What kid will ever fill in a grammar worksheet in a real life language speaking situation?  When will they ever need to recite the alphabet or list all of the clothing in their closet?  Do they really need to know the names of gym equipment or the household chores?  You have VERY little time in your classroom to give them enduring knowledge.  What will benefit them most when they head out to speak to the natives???  THAT is where you begin to find your big ideas!

I tend to get a lot of mileage out of the same big ideas.  I can design one really fancy UbD unit and then cheat by adapting it to a whole lot of other situations.  For example… In level one we read four novels.  I have four UbD units that help me lead the kids to a place where they can read and appreciate the culture of each novel.  I started with the big ideas that “Students will be able to read and understand the novel…..” and “Students will be able to discuss the novel and its cultural topic in an increasingly complex manner.”  Four units for the price of one.  Of course the activities are different, the assessments are different, but the goal is the same.

My overarching goals for all classes, all units, are that students will use increasingly complex language to discuss cultural topics, students will learn to understand and appreciate people of other cultures, and students will compare events and customs around the world to their own lives.  As long as I know that everything we do is leading toward these three things, I think that we can’t go wrong….

Of COURSE we use TPRS every day in class.  It is the heart of everything we do!  As we build the necessary vocabulary to read those novels, we do it through TPRS.  This UbD isn’t a different way of teaching, it is a framework that our TPRS fits into.  Honestly, they go hand in hand.  It makes so much sense to use all of these great TPRS stories to scaffold students into a novel.  Those stories become more and more complex as we acquire more structure and they help us to speak/write in increasingly complex ways…

Take ANY unit you have… Start small.  Start with just one so it isn’t so threatening.  Ask yourself WHY do you teach it?  What is your goal?  What do you want the kids to be able to do at the end that will stay with them FOREVER?  When you know, design all of your activities and assessments with that goal in mind.  If something you have “always done” does nothing to help kids reach that goal, throw it out!  It isn’t worth wasting one precious second of the time we have with them on activities that do not help them become confident, fluent speakers and lovers of language!


  1. Hi Carrie,
    After reading this post I’m convinced that I should have gone to your session on Backward Planning at NTPRS. I read your syllabus for Sp1 and I’m still not sure how it all fits together. I have so many questions for you: How did you choose the first 50 words in the first 9 weeks? Did you use a frequency list or focus more on words from Esperanza? For those 50 words and the next set, are they the words you and your students use to create stories? How long are your classes? 50 minutes? In the past I’ve used Mi Vida Loca en Sp3 but see you have it in the first 9 weeks of Sp1. How do you prepare your students for that? The articles that students read in the first quarter, are they about Central America & Mexico and is that how they study them?
    See…I warned you I had a lot of questions (and there are plenty more).
    I’m registered for ACTFL – def. making it a point to attend your session. 🙂

    • Hi! Well, here are all the answers! Haha not that I have all of the answers but these at least address your questions! I begin the year with Ben Slavic’s circling with balls. The first 50 words include whatever we cover in the 5-8 days of balls plus the first chapter of cuéntame más. Reading the first novel is a LOT slower than subsequent novels because they are very new and need a lot of guidance and hand holding! And lots of vocab circling before the chapters. Beyond the first 50, I use Carol’s Cuentame chapters 2-4 in Spanish 1 and I do some cultural things that require a few additional structures. As long as you limit to 3 per day and really circle them, you can bring in whatever you need to! I am at a school with 43 minute classes. We read articles from the magazine ¿Qué tal? by scholastic but sometimes I find something online and use it in class as well. If it is too hard, I paraphrase or if it is fairly easy, we just read and discuss. Remember than in Span I, discussion means that I say simple things about it in Spanish slowly and they respond as they are able… They aren’t going to be speaking volumes but can follow cultural discussions in the TL if they are 100% CI! I used episode 1 of mi vida loca yesterday in Spanish 1. They did great! I made some little worksheets to help them copy down what they will need to say later in the episode and it works well. I think it is perfect for beginners because it has so much English content! So glad to hear you’ll be at ACTFL! Kristy and I will be sharing our ideas for an upper and a lower level UbD unit this time! And we’ll be in the booth all weekend so be sure you say hi! 🙂

  2. I remember reading somewhere that you use a sort of skeleton UbD for all of your novela reading units, right? Is this something you’re willing to share? I’m working on a UbD for Robo en la noche (thanks for your help from the ACTFL presentation, btw!), and I’m curious what your final product looks like. Thanks!! 🙂

    • I do use a skeleton UbD for all of my units long and short. I’m trying to adhere to the idea that if I don’t know why I’m doing it, I shouldn’t be! 🙂 as part of our Danielson readiness, we are keeping a binder of lesson/unit plans and I’ve been using a simplified UbD template to create the lesson plans. I made a section for the Big Ideas, a students will know and a students will be able to section, and a section for both skill building activities across the unit and assessments! I’d share if you want to look at it!

      • Hi Carrie, I met you for the first time at the 2014 iFLT conference. You and Kristy have given me a whole paradigm shift for teaching. I would love to look at this, also a sample of a full unit if that is ok with you.

        Thank you!

  3. Carrie,
    UBD is as useful for me as it is for my students; it keeps all of us focused on what is important, which usually, is not a worksheet.
    Thank you for sharing.

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